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Why are 102 cellos in Disney Hall? Ralph Kirshbaum is happy to tell you

Why are 102 cellos in Disney Hall? Ralph Kirshbaum is happy to tell you
Cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, artistic director of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, rehearses with pianist Izumi Kashiwagi at his Los Angeles home earlier this month. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The second Piatigorsky International Cello Festival — four years in the making — begins Friday, and though the 26 cellists coming to Los Angeles from around the world include some famous names in the classical world, such as Yo-Yo Ma and Raphael Wallfisch, others are less familiar.

Festival founder Ralph Kirshbaum, who has held the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello at USC's Thornton School of Music since 2008, hopes audiences will discover new artists amid the rich variety of events. The festival, running until May 22, includes performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and USC in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Calder and Emerson String quartets. The extravaganza also offers master classes open to the public, panel discussions and even a marketplace of exhibitors including instrument and bow makers.

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For this edited conversation, Kirshbaum discussed what's new in this second festival and why Piatigorsky, who taught at USC until his death in 1976, is still such a force among cellists.

The L.A. City Council recently proclaimed this Piatigorsky International Cello Festival Week. What made you think you could build an entire festival around Piatigorsky's name?

Piatigorsky was the first cellist in this country to open the doors for the cello to be considered a solo instrument. He had an outsize personality, wonderful sense of storytelling on the instrument and a beautiful sound. He was a captivating performer and undeniably one of the most important musicians of the latter half of the 20th century. It's one thing to master your instrument, but another to be truly beloved. Piatigorsky was truly beloved.

Did you study with him?

After I performed a concert with the L.A. Phil, Piatigorsky invited me to his home. I was in my 20s. He was my boyhood idol. One of my most influential teachers as a teenager was a Piatigorsky pupil, and I played for Piatigorsky in a master class in Texas when I was 13. There were all these links.

The first L.A. cello festival in 2012 concluded with a concert of 100 cellos filling the Disney Hall stage. How do you top that?

We're doing the 100 cellos again, on a mid-festival Disney Hall concert on May 17 that includes "Threads and Traces," a world premiere by Anna Clyne, a young British composer who has a background as a cellist. We're starting the concert with Schubert's Quintet in C Major, one of the great chamber pieces, featuring two cellos, with myself and the Emerson quartet. Then there's 12 cellos in Brett Dean's "Twelve Angry Men," inspired by the book and film. And we finish with, actually, 102 cellos.

Ralph Kirshbaum, whose cello festival opens Friday.
Ralph Kirshbaum, whose cello festival opens Friday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What else is new about this festival?

We have 13 new artists. One thing I try to impress on audiences: They should have the courage and curiosity to come and listen to some of those artists whose names they are not so familiar with. And trust that they're here because they are great artists.

Can you give us an example?

Giovanni Sollima, an Italian cellist and composer. It's Yo-Yo Ma's first time at the festival, and he's performing one of Giovanni's pieces, "Il bell'Antonio," at his Disney Hall recital on [Sunday]. And Giovanni's going to be at the USC festival gala opening at Bovard Auditorium, also on [Sunday], featuring Giovanni doing improvisation. We've never had improvisation at the festival.

What can you program only in festivals like this one?

You can hear the Jacques Ibert "Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra," Friedrich Gulda's quirky "Concerto for Cello and Winds" and Sofia Gubaidulina's "Canticle of the Sun" for cello and chamber choir. You might hear one, but to hear all three in a concert — that's something you can only do in a festival. We also have a new Quintet+ Series — three concerts in the early evening on the USC campus, in which the Calder Quartet and one of 26 international cellists joins them to play a two-cello quintet.

You just turned 70. Are you doing anything special to celebrate this milestone?

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The opening concert of the festival is me performing Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo" from his Jewish Cycle with Leonard Slatkin and the L.A. Phil. That's my birthday present to myself. It wasn't necessarily the intention at the time. I just wanted to play this great work.

The festival closes with Beethoven's complete works for cello, each performed by a different cellist. How important is Beethoven to cellists?

His sonatas have been at the core of everything I've done. Beethoven is a pivotal composer. If you follow his compositional development through the five sonatas, the cello emerged as an equal partner to the piano. Musically and technically, Beethoven was the first composer who really opened up the next level of possibility for the cello.

Deciding on a career in music is more difficult than ever. Are you optimistic about the future for young, upcoming cellists?

I am. I tend to be an optimist. I had an uncle who studied violin at Juilliard, but he became an engineer. Near the end of his life, he told me one of his greatest regrets was not continuing with the violin. So it's not a new phenomenon. If somebody is passionate, committed, determined and creative enough, they're going to find a way to make a living as a musician.

You have told a story of how Piatigorsky once played a difficult opening movement from a Locatelli sonata for Pablo Casals ...

Casals couldn't quite match his technique. A week later, Piatigorsky went to a Casals recital, which began with this sonata. Piatigorsky told me Casals performed the opening movement perfectly. Casals had found a way to match the sound as written with an alternative bowing. Piatigorsky looked at me and said, "That, Ralph, is art — and that was Casals." This is one great artist acknowledging the artistic breadth of another great artist.

That kind of humility seems to inform the upcoming festival.

That's what this cello festival is about: the ability to recognize and celebrate the artistry of many different cellists from all over the world. To do away with competition, and celebrate those differences. That's what motivated me to develop a festival like this. To find ways of showing the diversity — the wide color spectrum and range of artistry we have in the cello world.

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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